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Boston investor vets Tampa Bay Lightning for potential purchase of the NHL team

TAMPA — NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, in his ongoing effort to resolve the Lightning's ownership issues, has recruited Boston hedge fund manager Jeff Vinik to explore becoming either a majority partner or outright owner of the team.

The league declined comment, and several phone calls to the media contact at Vinik's company were not returned. But Vinik's representatives recently were in Tampa doing due diligence and looking over the St. Pete Times Forum, and speculation is if something was to come together, it will happen sooner rather than later.

It was unclear if Vinik would recruit other investors and what roles, if any, Lightning co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, would have if Vinik moved forward. But his involvement adds to a tumultuous and intriguing time for the organization.

Reports last week on the SportsBusiness Daily Web site said the team was advanced $2 million from television-rights holder Sun Sports to help meet last season's final payroll and the team received an advance on the league revenue sharing it will get after this season to help meet January's payroll.

Several reports, the latest from the Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Mich., said OK Hockey could be in default of its loans to previous Lightning owner Palace Sports & Entertainment. And there is talk that Barrie, despite his financial problems at his Bear Mountain Resort in Victoria, British Columbia, still is trying to put together an ownership package.

Barrie could not be reached, and Koules declined comment.

Wing Marty St. Louis, a team leader, said Thursday that however the situation shakes out, he is "absolutely" ready for things to be settled.

"For the good of the team," he agreed.

Vinik, 50, a limited partner with the Red Sox, is better known in financial circles. The New Jersey native, Duke graduate and Harvard MBA managed the Fidelity Magellan Fund in the mid and late '90s. He is the principal owner of Vinik Asset Management.

Its Sept. 30 quarterly report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicated the company is managing holdings of $1.7 billion.

A March 2006 Boston Magazine article put Vinik's worth at $515 million.

Whether Vinik's interest is from a passion for hockey or an eye for an investment is unclear.

Hal Lindquist, a senior managing director at the Blackstone Group in New York who has invested with Vinik, said he had not heard about Vinik and the Lightning but deadpanned, "I know he coaches his son's soccer team."

Vinik's name is the third from outside the organization to surface since last summer, when Bettman put up the "For Sale" sign.

St. Louis real estate developer Anthony Sansone Jr. is believed still to be interested but hasn't been able to put together a deal. And Miami Beach real estate investor Jeff Greene bowed out after looking at the team's books.

But the landscape has changed somewhat with the news Karen Davidson, widow of former Palace Sports owner Bill Davidson, might sell the NBA's Pistons and Palace Sports, the umbrella company that also owned the Lightning.

The league has made retiring the debt Koules and Barrie owe Palace Sports an imperative for potential owners. There is speculation a for-sale Palace Sports might take less on the dollar to clear the debt, which includes about $67 million in financing of the $200 million sale and another $30 million in operating capital.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Damian Cristodero can be reached at cristodero@sptimes.com.

Boston investor vets Tampa Bay Lightning for potential purchase of the NHL team 01/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 7:15am]
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